Monday 27 Jun 2022 | 07:28 | SYDNEY
Monday 27 Jun 2022 | 07:28 | SYDNEY

Can quality save journalism?


Sam Roggeveen


29 October 2010 15:19

In an earlier post, I mentioned the debate about Annabel Crabb's recent speech about online media. I really hope Crabb responds to the criticisms made by Tim Dunlop and Mr Denmore, but in the meantime, I want to offer one thought on a criticism that Dunlop and Denmore both make about this argument by Crabb:

Why is my intellectual property suddenly worthless, while the guy who invents hilarious ring-tones is still entitled to the customary presumption that his day's work warrants some kind of commensurate recompense' The answer is that journalists have already ceded the field. We've already given our stuff away. I can still remember when I got my cheque from News Limited for the copyright to my articles when published online. What was it' Four hundred dollars' Something like that'

So according to Crabb, because the media gave away its content in the early days of the online revolution, it created a stubborn consumer expectation that news will always be free. Dunlop and Denmore both say this overlooks a simpler explanation for why consumers don't place much monetary value on the work of journalists: because most of it isn't very good.

To me, this implies that, if journalism were better, consumers would be more inclined to pay for it. Given the decline of quality newspapers in many parts of the world, this seems like a hard claim to back up. Maybe if the New York Times' next experiment in paywalling works, we will be able to conclude that a commitment to high quality journalism makes commercial sense. But if that were true, wouldn't more media outlets have tried it by now rather than going downmarket'

Dunlop and Denmore are right to demand higher standards from journalists, and Dunlop is spot-on in arguing that journalists need to embrace the role of 'explainers and communicators'. But it's hard to see how that could save journalism, since the mainstream media's arm wrestle with social media is really an unfair fight.

As Dunlop says, 'many blogs and other online sites are superior to anything the mainstream media can throw up.' So although there are great journalists out there who do make public policy understandable and interesting, on any given issue, journalists (who tend to be generalists) are hard pressed to match the expertise that's out there among members of the public, who can now share their knowledge with the world at no cost.

Annabel Crabb says that free information tends to be banal, and that '(g)ood information is expensive.'

But the online revolution has created a third category of information: that which is important, useful and free. Take Wikipedia for instance, or the countless blogs and internet forums that bring together experts who discuss their pet issues in incredible detail. The remarkable thing about all these enterprises is that the participants give away their hard-earned expertise and hours of their time for nothing. There's no obvious economic reward, just peer respect and the chance to be part of something worthwhile. How are journalists meant to compete with that'

For all their criticism of the Australian media, Dunlop and Denmore both present an optimistic view of the future of journalism as a profession, in that they offer a way out of the current malaise through a commitment to quality. I'm not convinced even that would work.